Bruce Thomas Boehrer

 

On his book Animal Characters: Nonhuman Beings in Early Modern Literature

Cover Interview of June 28, 2010

A close-up

One bit of Animal Characters should interest anyone who has ever wondered about the history of cats and their relationship with human beings.  In it I unearth a centuries-long tradition of cat-torture, both on the European continent and in Britain, which evolved out of pagan worship to become part of Catholic calendar festivals and then, still later, of Protestant festivals as well.

The tale of this evolution is both fascinating and grisly, with cats publicly tortured on festival days in ways obscenely reminiscent of Christ’s passion. I trace the story of these animals’ maltreatment through literary works such as William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat (sometimes called the first English novel), the Cambridge University comedy Gammer Gurton’s Needle (the earliest surviving English play to bring a cat onstage), and works by Shakespeare, Cervantes, and others.

The cats I look at are tormented in endless ways, with whips and cudgels and firebrands and more, in fiction and drama and historical records over a span of many centuries.  And always, so it seems, the violence occurs in a spiritual context.  In pagan religious practice, cats are tortured to effect magic.  In Catholicism the cat-torture is assimilated to church calendar festivals such as the feast of Saint John the Baptist.  And when England goes Protestant, the cat-torture continues—now as an anti-Catholic insult.

As this story unfolds, the persecuted cats of early modern Europe come to seem more and more like doubles of the suffering Christ himself: the ritually tormented scapegoat on whose sacrifice the system of ritual itself depends.